William Paul Young, author of “The Shack,” joins Kurt Wallace in a series of interviews to discuss aspects of the book that has sold over 18 million copies worldwide.
This is the full uncut interview.
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Kurt Wallace for Rare: Fictional novel “The Shack” written by William Paul Young. He is our guest today on Rare, and Paul it’s great to have you with us today. Thanks for joining us.
William Paul Young: Kurt, I am honored to be a part of your conversation.
Kurt Wallace for Rare: It’s great to have you, as well. And I want to go ahead and start out telling you a little bit about my story. I met a very special woman — she’s in my life — and in getting to know her, she asked me about my relationship with God. Now, I don’t talk about God. I don’t talk about God with anyone. I have a relationship with God, but I realized at some point that what that did with me is it would separate me, and I didn’t want to be separated from her. I felt so connected to her that I didn’t want to lose that. So, I didn’t want to answer that question, and I told her that. So, she decided instead to describe her relationship with God, and I was blown away. She was describing what I know to be true. And then she told me about your book, The Shack, and that it had changed her life. And what it had done for her. So, I decided I was going to read the book. As I was reading the first chapter, I texted her — and the main character in your book, Mackenzie, I texted her — “I am Mac,” because that was me. And your book had reaffirmed many things that I know to be true. And it was noninvasive, regarding sort of the religious preconcepts of God. And she didn’t know what I was talking about when I said I was Mac. So, I said I’m reading the book. And she says, “Oh my God, you’re reading the book!” That’s how I came to find out…
William Paul Young: That is so cool. Thank goodness there are women in our lives — that’s all I can say. We get saved by the women in our lives.
Kurt Wallace for Rare: No kidding. No kidding. And that’s part of your story — your wife, Kim.
The dogma of religion, the dogma has been challenged by “The Shack.” And the idea of religion and the interpretations of it — you challenge things in the book about this — how forgiveness works — even the Ten Commandments. You’ve been attacked as a heretic. But this is…
William Paul Young: I’ve been in good company, because Jesus was always challenging the dogma of religion. So, you know, it’s not like I’m out there by myself.
Kurt Wallace for Rare: Well, tell us a little bit more about this as far as your writing the book and what that means to you and why this is such an issue.
William Paul Young: Ah, I’m a missionary kid and a preacher’s kid — evangelical, fundamental Protestant. And firstborn — there ya go. You know, that’s about as distance from relationship with God as you can get. And it’s always been you know, religion that has been the primary impediment to actual relationship with God, because it creates a mythology about performance — that you can perform your way into the appeasement of the deity. And you know, when you’re born inside the cultural framework that I was, and you’re born inside the religious traditions that I was, that becomes your understanding of spirituality: That it’s about trying to please God. So, it’s really not about God at all; it’s about our ability to perform according to whatever the expectations are.
And everybody’s got a set of those. You can be Islamic and you have your Five Pillars, with a niche pillar — there’s a whole series of things you have to do, whether it’s eight steps or twelve steps, or well that’s AA, but it’s also a twelve step program, if you want it. And evangelicals have like millions of rules. And it’s just, uh, we have sort of an accepted, rationalism within which we frame religion. And we think that belief, intellectually, is of the same as relationship. And in our Western family conversation, that’s become an incredible impediment toward actual wholeness, where the heart and the head are aligned and relationship – with not just God but with each other.
And when you learn, over the course of your life, that it’s not about pleasing God, it’s about learning how to trust God. That’s a huge watershed, because trust is a whole different ballgame than appeasement or pleasing. So, when I wrote “The Shack,” you know, I had no intentions of becoming a published author. I just was trying to write a story for our six children, the youngest of whom is now 20, but I’m trying to write a story and just say, look, let me wrap inside Mackenzie’s story mind in which I want to tell you about the God that actually showed up and healed my heart. Not the God I grew up, because the God I grew up was fundamentally, and I use the word advisedly, fundamentally untrustworthy — schizophrenic, narcissistic, unreachable, unknowable, and my concept within which I grew up was that Jesus — He likes me — but He came to save me from God the Father — who was the one who was angry and distant, and unreachable, unknowable. All of that had to come crashing down — and like many of us, it’s in the context of our real life, where relationships come apart and where, you know, you’ve been hiding your addictions in secrets. And when all that façade and performance stuff comes crashing down, you have an opportunity to actually become an authentic human being. And that’s part of my story.
Um, I made 15 copies at Office Depot. It did everything I ever wanted it to do — in those 15 copies. All of the rest of this is, I think, you know, is part of God’s great sense of humor. And I’m thrilled to be a part of it. And I’m thrilled to hear your story. That just tickles me no end. And how cool is that — that I got to participate in creating some space so that your relationship with the woman in your life would expand and grow? What an honor to be on that holy ground, so thank you for that.
Kurt Wallace for Rare: One of my favorite parts in the book is when Papa calls Mac an idiot. It’s just brilliant.
William Paul Young: And a liar.
Kurt Wallace for Rare: Right?
William Paul Young: This is the deal, you know? It’s kind of like – Well, I’ve never heard a swear word, right? So yeah, and every time you do, you’ve got to turn your back on you or something.
No this is, yeah, we won’t even go there, but this is about — we’re talking about a relationship with person, and not just, three persons who share such integration within their character and nature and their uniqueness that it’s called oneness. You know, that there is one God, but there are three persons, so this issue of relationship, for me, is centered on the reality that there has always been relationship within the character of God, otherwise we don’t have a real basis for either love, which is other-centered and self-giving, or relationship. And so that becomes very central to me and it just happens that that’s pretty orthodox theology, too. But it’s the only thing that makes any coherent sense. And I love that.
Kurt Wallace for Rare: The way that “The Shack” reads, and I’ve actually made the mistake, I’ve actually called your book “The Gift.” I don’t know why, maybe that’s a, I don’t know. But to me, it is a gift. But in the book “The Shack,” you have a way of disarming some of the preconceived ideas of religion. And I’m kind of curious with people that are of other religions or they’re non-Christian or don’t have a religion, could you tell us about the relationship that they’ve had with the book, and the response you’ve gotten from people that aren’t Christian?
William Paul Young: Oh, it’s across the board. It doesn’t seem to matter whether you’ve got any religious background or frame of reference — whether you’re agnostic or atheist. I just wrote the foreword for two guys — one’s an atheist and the other’s a pastor — who are really close friends with each other. And they’ve written a book called “Saving Casper,” a follow up to their book, “Jim and Casper go to church.” And Matt Casper’s the atheist, and he loves “The Shack.” I’ve got lots of friends within the Jewish community that love “The Shack.” And you go, well, you know, Jesus is sort of a central figure. I said, that’s okay, because the character of God that’s revealed there is so consistent with the Judaistic frame of reference. I’ve got people who are coming from the Muslim world or from New Ages, it wasn’t that big of a step, but I get to speak at New Age conferences, because I’m the person that can talk about that there is person and relationship with the intimate context of God.
And it’s just sort of bridged all these gaps — who knew, right? Because the publishers didn’t know. I didn’t know. What it did is it gave people a language to have a conversation about God that wasn’t religious. It was relational. And all of a sudden, people in their own families, regardless of their history, religious or not, now — they had a language. They could talk about it. And if you ran into somebody who was reading “The Shack,” you knew you could have a conversation, because you had shared language now, and that’s one of the greatest gifts that this book has given — unanticipated and unexpected and really thrilling and beautiful, you know? Who else gets invited to the National Conference of MENSA, to the Atheist Book Club, to Southern Baptist Conference mega churches, you know? It’s so cool.
Kurt Wallace for Rare: The thing about this is, what’s interesting about your story, you wrote this for your children. You wrote it just to write it and to get it out — get your ideas out and the way that you see things, right? And had somebody set out to do what has happened, it wouldn’t have had what it has in it, probably.
William Paul Young: Yeah. You know, and so I tell people, you have to understand, for the first 15 copies, it did everything that I wanted it to do. That’s really important. The second thing that’s really important is that everything that matters to me was in place before I wrote it. The things that matter — like community, worth, value, significance, security, meaning, purpose, destiny, community, love. Those things really matter — and if we look to our performance or our artistic creativity, or whatever, in order to try and get those things, it’s just a matter of time before we’re disillusioned and I was at a place — and we had nothing in terms of physical, we had lost everything the year before, because of business going sideways and stuff. So I’m working three jobs — I’m cleaning toilets, I’m doing shipping and receiving, I’m a hotel night clerk — I’m whatever/whatever/whatever, and I got forty minutes on the train to Portland, Oregon to get to my main job, and that gave me the space and the time to begin to write something that I was trying to get something done for the kids for Christmas. But I wrote it out of the healing process. Not part of it. And I’m so thrilled that I didn’t need it. I didn’t need in terms of identity, or worth or value. And I still don’t. I’m thrilled to be a part of it, but if it all went away tomorrow, I’d be absolutely fine. Not just fine. I’d be great, because I already found answers to those things before I wrote it and frankly I don’t think I could have written it until I got to the place where I felt whole enough or healthy enough to be able to express the journey that I’ve been on. Mackenzie’s weekend in “The Shack” represents 11 years for me. And, but you know, I didn’t want to write an 11-year book for my kids.
Kurt Wallace for Rare: How difficult was it, for you, in terms of writing this book and revealing yourself and revealing what you had to deal with in the healing process?
William Paul Young: It wasn’t hard because I have no secrets. By the time I, you know, I made it through my eleven years. I have no secrets in my life. There is nothing that my family — my wife Kim or my kids or my friends don’t know. I just don’t have any secrets, and I didn’t know the whole world was going to be reading this thing, so, you know, I made my fifteen copies –gave six to the kids and Kim got a copy and a couple cousins and then the rest of my friends. And that was the end of it as far as anything that I considered, so, I mean, it’s not that it isn’t tender and it isn’t emotional, and it is. A lot of things in terms of our losses are tender but they lose the edge of their ability to continue to hurt you. Somehow they get wrapped up in God’s grace and the very things that were losses to us, somehow become icons and monuments of grace, but they don’t lose that tenderness, which is part of being human and a lot of us have locked ourselves away from our emotional worlds and we made vows and agreements never to feel things anymore. It’s God’s intention for us to become fully human again. And that’s what I’m trying to describe is — let me tell you about becoming human, for me, because I’ve gotten lost inside the performance stuff and the religious stuff, because I was so damaged and I have a long ways to go. It took a long time for me to become a child. And it took a long time to destroy the mythologies that existed in my own mind and heart about the character and nature of God as well as who I was. So, you know, I’m beyond grateful and thankful for being able to participate.
Kurt Wallace for Rare: The idea that we have to unlearn so many things in order to be free is, I think, a very important concept in an experience that I have gone through as well. In the book, you talk about — Mackenzie — has had his experience/relationship with God. And he leaves “The Shack,” and he talks about going into the unreal world — that statement, the unreal world — versus the real world, where I’ve often, personally, said this: When I go out there in the world, I’m out there, and the message is, “You’re not okay. You’re not okay — you will never be okay. You have to buy this product. You have to become this size. You have to look like this. You have to act like that, feel this way. Take this medication — whatever it is, to be okay.” And the world out there, tells us, that we’re not okay.
William Paul Young: The unreal world is the world of the “I am not’s.” I am not skinny enough, I am not beautiful enough, I am not smart enough. The unreal world is the world of the I am not’s. The real world is the “I am.” And you can’t have an “I am not,” unless there is a deeper “I am.” And that’s the journey we are on. And God is intending for us to learn how to agree with God about the truth of our being.
And we are so used to the lies in our lives and the “I am not’s.” And I’m borrowing that phrase from Baxter Krueger who wrote “The Shack Revisited,” but we’re so used to the “I am not’s” that we think it’s real. We think that the lies we believe are the real world. And you’re right; it’s embedded in everything, all these lies. So, it takes us time. And the kindness of God is He has a respect for the fact that we are human creations and our ability to choose and participate, even in our own healing, matters. God’s not going to heal us apart from our ability to choose to move through that process.
Kurt Wallace for Rare: You brought up addiction and what that has been like. I believe that this is, for me, a very, very deep issue. I actually have 27 years as a recovering alcoholic, and this means a lot to me, talking about addiction openly. I’ve never done it before. This is the first time I’m doing this publicly. But in that, someone who has an addiction as I did, I was in prison. I was unable to be released from that. I didn’t believe I had a problem. And then one day, I hit a bottom. And I started to become part of a journey and a conversation with others. And that conversation has never stopped. And that conversation frees me and that’s, when I read your book, that’s my life.
William Paul Young: Yeah. And you said something absolutely profound and significant, and it’s easy to slip by it. You used the word “others,” because we’re not designed to do this by ourselves, and as long as we are maintaining our isolation and our non-relational independence, we have not hit the bottom yet.
You know, I walked the edge of suicide. Suicide is not hitting the bottom. Suicide is refusing to hit the bottom — it is to run away from actually owning who we are and what you’ve done. And hitting the bottom is when you stop pointing fingers anywhere else, and you own this. And you let go of control. And one of the ways you let go of control is you let someone else in. I’m not just talking about God. I’m talking about another human being. And we’re designed in such a way that we cannot do this by ourselves. I believe we are made in the image of a God who’s never done anything by Himself. There’s always been three persons. There’s always been a relational reality that God functions within, in terms of God’s very own character and nature, and so, part of my letting go, when everything blew up on me, part of the let go of control was I opened the yellow pages, and I looked under counseling, and I started with the A’s, and I ran into a counseling service that started with A that jumped out of the page at me. And they had a byline specializing in “sexual abuse history”, because that’s part of my great sadness. And I called them up and said, “I need to make an appointment.” And I sat there, the intake was done, and the guy says, “I think I got the right guy for you.” And he puts me in front of a man, who became my counselor, who became my friend, Scott Mitchell, and for the first time in my life I said these words, “Can you help me?”
And part of letting go meant that I no longer was going to assume in my heart that I was smarter than the person that was sitting across from me, because that was part of my whole defensive mechanism of control, and Scott says to me, the first day, when I said, “My life’s over, and can you help me?” He said, “Yeah, but it’s going to take like a year and a half.” And I said, “Well, I’m in.” He said, “Everybody says they’re in. He says, but after a couple of months, they’ll feel a little bit more in control, and they’ll feel better about themselves in that sense of self-deception, and then they’ll bail.” And I said to him, “If I can’t find some healing from my own heart, I’m done. I’m done. I have no other option, so I’m not leaving until you tell me I’m done, because I don’t even trust myself to know when that’s…I’m done trying to self-justify myself into some position of control in order to stay safe.” And that really became the building block of trying to walk my way through this and as much we would like to be fixed, you know, have the right tail that makes this transformation a piece of cake.
We’re too incredibly crafted as created beings and plus, we’re in an expanding universe in terms of our soul. It’s not that simple. I mean, the truth is simple, because it has to work for children. And how we’re bent and broken is unique to us as human beings, and how God unwinds that, let me tell you, I think AA is a gift of God to humanity. One of many. But, it arises out of a desire to help human beings deal with the prisons that they’re stuck in, especially around alcohol or drug addiction and now pornography and other elements of really coercive, addictional issues. I’m grateful, every day, for folks like that.
Kurt Wallace for Rare: In your eleven-year journey, going through the process of surrendering and dealing with and facing these different things, what is the primary thing that made this happen for you?
William Paul Young: Oh, boy. There’s a few of them.
One is I’m married to a woman who is not a meek, mild, submitted woman. She and her five sisters are called The Force, right? And she has two brothers as well. They are Minnesota, North Dakota, salt-of-the-earth folks. And, you know, she didn’t know you could be more than one thing. I’m a religious kid. I’ve been a different thing in every environment I’ve ever been in. You know, I’m totally disintegrated in that sense. And so part of what saved me was that I’m married to a woman who was a fury, and she refused to not come after every piece of something in my life that she thought was wrong. So, her fury, plus other people who were in the middle of this process with me, as much shame as I think where a lot of us are driven by shame, as much shame there was in my life, there were people like Scott Mitchell, people that were in this process with me — my friends — guys in my life that I could say, “Okay, I’m stuck. I’m here.”
And, you know, there’s one other little piece in this that I think is really significant. I began just taking one day at a time, which isn’t an AA thing as well, it’s a Jesus thing. It’s like, hey, you get grace for one day. Don’t try to spend real grace — today’s grace — on imaginations that don’t even exist. And I had spent most of my life, projecting fear-based imaginations, dragging those imaginations into the present and then trying to control my relationships, so that the things that I was afraid of wouldn’t happen. And I was running away from the present into imaginations of the future that don’t even exist — spending today’s grace on something that wasn’t even real. And so, part of this process was shrinking everything back to just today — just today. I only have today. I don’t even know if I’ll be there tomorrow on imaginations that do not even exist.
And that, learning to live inside, okay, can I make it through the next six hours or eight hours? Am I being asked to make decisions today that I don’t have a capacity to do it, because they’re part of these imaginations? I’m not being asked. So let’s put those aside. Let me put one foot in front of the other. It’s an excruciating process to deal with your own crap, you know? It’s worth the work but man. I never want to go through that kind of dismantling again, you know? And even though, I love the results on this side of it. It was horrible. It was painful. It was awful, it was all my shame I had to be dealt with, I had to walk through the history and memory, and oh my gosh! And it’s not there isn’t finished work. There’s lots of little nuances and peeper and little pieces of the lies that emerge here and there. Nothing like the major reconstruction. And that is the imagery of “The Shack” – the house on the inside that people help you build. And a lot of us, we didn’t get good help, and so it just became the place where we stored our addictions and hid our secrets and filled us with shame. And we didn’t want anybody in there, because we thought they’d end up hating us the way we already did. So, that kind of exposure and that kind of process — not fun but worth it.
Kurt Wallace for Rare: I totally relate to that. The book is “The Shack.” William P. Young, and I really appreciate you spending some time with us today on Rare to discuss these aspects of your life and the book, and the book’s relationship with the rest of the world. Thank you for being with us.
William Paul Young: Well Kurt, thank you. Again, I love being inside these conversations — don’t understand them — grateful, very thankful, and so thank you.